This yearly report is running very late this year, and there’s a good reason for that: on January 1, 2020, I made a big move from Berkeley, California, to Kauai, Hawaii. This move is part of some bigger changes in my life, and by April I expect to have stepped back from some of the tasks that have kept me occupied in recent years and to have more time to dedicate to writing of my own … particularly the continued evolution and expansion of Designers & Dragons.

So that’s what’s been happening to my locally: 2019 was a year of preparation and 2020 will be a year of settling back in. But what happened to the roleplaying industry last year?

Farewell, Heroes. The roleplaying industry is unfortunately at a time in its life where we are suffering a series of bitter losses. Without trying to remember every single person that we lost in 2019, here are some of our lost comrades that you are most likely to recognize because of their notable effects on the industry:

  • Darwin Bromley. The founder of Mayfair Games, Bromley’s first, foundational effect on the roleplaying industry was creating the Empire Builder (1980) series of games, co-designed with Bill Fawcett. He later was one of the first people to bring eurogames into the US. More specifically focusing on the RPG industry, Bromley was one of the first to test TSR’s hegemony through his unlicensed publication of D&D-compatible Role Aids products; his company also produced RPG notables like Chill second edition (1990), DC Heroes (1985), and Underground (1993).
  • Lee Garvin. The creator of Tales from the Floating Vagabound (1991), Garvin watched Avalon Hill quickly drop the game out of print, and then it took him a decade to regain the rights. In recent years he Kickstarted a second edition, and began publication through his own Reality Cheque, before succumbing to the cruelty of the US healthcare system.
  • Larry DiTillio. DiTillio is primarily known for one of the best roleplaying adventures ever, Masks of Nyarlathotep (1984) for Call of Cthulhu. It’s shocking that he could create such a exemplar adventure when he was only involved in our industry for two years, primarily at Flying Buffalo. Afterward, he returned to the TV industry, where he’d later help birth Babylon 5 (1993-1999).
  • Rick Loomis. A founder of our industry, Loomis was one of the last principals still running and publishing at a company created in the ’70s. Granted, he started Flying Buffalo as a PBM company, but he dove right into roleplaying publication with Tunnels & Trolls (1975) and Starfaring (1976). He also was the founder of the solo games industry with his T&T solo books and later revamped and revived his company’s RPG publication with the Blade imprint in the ’80s, which employed luminaries such as Liz Danforth, Michael Stackpole, and Larry Ditillio and produced more classic books such as Grimtooth’s Traps (1981) and the Citybook series (1981-1997).
  • James Mathe. Whereas many of our losses last year were the innovators of the ’70s and ’80s, Mathe was instead an innovator of the ’00s, most notable in our industry for his creation of RPGNow, the first major online sales channel for RPG PDFs, which later became part of OneBookShelf. In his later years, Mathe was more involved with the boardgame side of the industry with his own Minion Games.

I wrote more about DiTillio, Garvin, and Mathe in an article this summer.

Other losses in 2019 include Walter Baas (TSR Projects), Mike Brunton (WFRP), Steve Creech (DragonWing Games), Bill Jaffe (1A Games), Steve Johansson (Kenzer & Co), Alejandro Melchor (d20 projects, Blue Rose), Sammantha Parish (Why Not Games), Geoff Robinson (podcaster), and likely many others that I’ve missed. It was a bad year in that respect.

One unfortunate trend that connects some of these creators, including at the least Garvin and Loomis, is a problem paying medical bills. Loomis ran up tens of thousands of dollars in bills, despite Medicare. Garvin faced years of problems due to the bills from an unexpected medical emergency, and in the end was likely killed by the fallout. And, as Greg Porter wrote while raising funds for Garvin: Aaron Allston, Richard Tucholka, and Loren Wiseman all faced similar problems before their early deaths. To a certain extent, this is a problem with the small size of the RPG industry and its lack of safety net. However, it’s also a larger problem with the United States, where access to medicine is considered a privilege, not a right, and not a societal obligation. Until that changes, our industry’s designers are literally putting their lives on the line to bring us the games that we love.

Hello, Industry. On a lighter note, it feels like the RPG industry has been on an upswing throughout the late ’10s, not just because D&D 5e (2014) has proven more popular than its predecessor, but also because the entire roleplaying hobby is gaining attention (and perhaps even respect?) in popular culture.

I mean, when lowest-denominator newspaper USA Today is printing an article about the success of D&D, that’s something. But that was just the tip of the iceberg: we also saw Wendy’s (the hamburger joint!) publishing a Feast of Legends RPG, DC Comics republishing the Mayfair Games supplements for Watchmen, Target exclusively selling the D&D Essentials Kit for a few months, and FFG distributing their core Star Wars RPG books through the Disney store (along with lots of their board and miniatures games). That’s not just RPGs being mentioned in the mass media, that’s RPGs being embraced by the larger population.

The Paizo Reboot. It’s funny, but it wasn’t that long ago that D&D was down and out, and Paizo was riding high with the bestselling roleplaying game in the industry. Just a few years later, Paizo is being forced to figure out what to do now that D&D is very firmly #1 again. Fortunately, Paizo has always been really good at reinventing themself. Paizo has thus revamped the D&D 3e-focused Pathfinder 1e RPG (2009) as a second edition (2019) that pulls back from 3e’s complexity — ironically just like D&D 4e (2008) did, the very edition that Pathfinder was rebelling against. The result is a game that’s much more Paizo’s own. Meanwhile, Paizo’s Pathfinder Adventure Card Game (2013) also got a second edition with the new Core Set (2019), which polishes its rules and makes the game more evocative. Whether this all will help Paizo remain at the top of the field remains to be seen, but it certainly shows off their continued desire to innovate.

Farewell to Middle-earth. Speaking of major changes for companies: Cubicle 7’s announcement that they were losing the Middle-earth license will surely mean a major change for them. It’s not the first time an RPG company has lost that license. (In fact, it’s the fourth.) But it is the loss of a dream of finally fulfilled, of playing D&D in Middle-earth (though lots of people did that with the old system-light ICE materials too), and it’ll likely be a big blow for Cubicle 7 — who fortunately has Warhammer licenses to fall back on.

And likely we’ll see a new Middle-earth licensee in the near future.

#MeToo Backlash. I’ve discussed in previous years how the Weinstein Wave hit the RPG industry, outing sexual harassers at cons and in publishing. This year, we’ve been seeing a bit of backlash, as two different people accused of sexual assault or harassment tried to silence their accusers with legal threats or lawsuits. They’ve even been threatening people reporting or repeating what the accusers say. Obviously, even after years of public discussion and revelations, our industry faces some serious problems of this nature — as do many entertainment industries.

More Kickstarters. Which finally leads us to Kickstarter, which contains to be a major player in our industry — and often a microcosm of major events.

The big Kickstarter news for the year was the funding of Critical Role: The Legend of Vox Machina Animated Special with 88,887 backers pledging $11,385,449. Obviously, it’s not quite an RPG product, but it’s another example of the RPG industry breaking out into the mass market: the very successful Critical Role livestream (2015-Present) is now producing stories about its adventuring party in animated form. I think of it as a ’10s reflection of the ’80s success of novels like Dragonlance (1984-1985). (Steamforged Games also raised £908,525 for Critical Role minis back in July 2018, so this new Kickstarter wasn’t a fluke.)

As for the biggest RPG Kickstarers, here’s a list of those that topped $100,000:

1. Kingdoms & Warfare for D&D 5eMatt Colville$1,372,685
2. Root RPGMagpie Games$602,022
3. Arcana of the Ancients for D&D 5eMonte Cook Games$520,207
4. Odyssey of the Dragonlords for D&D 5eArcanum Worlds$456,332
5. Lancer RPGMassif Press$432,029
6. Numenera: Liminal ShoresMonte Cook Games$378,408
7. Sentinel Comics RPGGreater Than Games$354,307
8. Lunars for Exalted 3eOnyx Path$288,526
9. Vaesen RPGFree LeagueSEK 2,717,353
10 Out of the Box Encounters for D&D 5eNerdarchy$256,734
11. The Bitter Reach for Forbidden LandsFree LeagueSEK 2,302,706
12. Deep Magic for D&D 5eKobold Press$240,373
13. Fiasco 2eBully Pulpit Games$230,291
14. American Armageddon for Rifts Savage WorldsPEG$230,387
15. Rise of the Drow for D&D 5eAAW Games$212,825
16. Grim Hollow for D&D 5eGhostfire GamingAU$ 284,145
17. Grimmerspace for StarfinderIron GM Games$188,281
18. Carbon 2185 RPGDragon Turtle Games£143,738
19. Old-School Essentials RPGNecrotic Gnome€160,390
20. Aysle for Torg EternityUlisses Spiele€155,750
21. Ultimate Bestiary: The Dread Accursed for D&D 5eNord Games$170,073
22. Empire of the Ghouls for D&D 5eKobold Press$168,687
23. Traveller 5e RPGFar Future Enterprises$166,304
24. Mother of Darkness for SymboroumFree LeagueSEK 1,570,958
25. Treacherous Traps for D&D 5eNord Games$161,691
26. Witch+Craft for D&D 5eAstrolago Press$161,533
27. The World of the Lost LandsFrog God Games$157,049
28. The Deepnight Revelation Campaign for TravellerMongoose£111,111
29. BESM 4e RPGJapanime Games$140,006
30. Muspelheim for Trudvang ChroniclesRiotmindsSEK 1,244,843
31. Heart: The City Beneath RPGGrant Howitt£99,612
32. Fateforge for D&D 5eStudio Agate$125,877
33. Trinity Continuum: AberrantOnyx Path$125,098
34. A Touch More Class for D&D 5eEn Publishing£94,503
35. Corpus Malicious for D&D 5eDream Realms£94,132
36. Decks of Destiny for TFTSteve Jackson Games$121,169
37. Swordsfall RPGBrandon Dixon$120,630
38. SLA Industries 2e RPGNightfall Games£90,444
39. Mutant: HindenburgFree LeagueSEK 1,126,913
40. Remarkable Shops & Their WaresLoreSmyth€102,267
41. Historia for D&D 5eMana Project Studio€102,012
42. The Lost City of Gaxmoor for D&D 5eTroll Lords$111,958
43. The Ultraviolet GrasslandsExalted Funeral$108,793
44. Swedish Call of CthulhuEloso FörlagSEK 986,778
45. Lasers & Liches for D&D 5eChris Lock$102,144
46. Sea King’s Malice for D&D 5eFrog God Games$102,001

The most notable thing about this listing is the sheer number: 46 pure RPG campaigns that toted up more than a hundred thousand dollars each. That’s another one-third increase over last year’s 34. And that was excluding any number of campaigns for dice, miniatures, notebooks, battlemaps, terrains, and other accessories, as well as campaigns for non-RPG products that are nonetheless part of our history, such as Steve Jackson’s very successful Kickstarters for Car Wars Sixth Edition and their old “Pocket Box” games.

But the second most notable thing to me is the rise of celebrity. When a Kickstarter brought in more than $200,000, celebrity was usually the reason. Monte Cook is still there as one of our designer celebrities, producing well-respected and evocative supplements for Numenéra and D&D 5e. But we’ve also got new streaming celebrities like Matt Colville and Matt Mercer and online celebrities like Tom Parkinson Morgan, creator of Kill Six Billion Demons. We even have celebrities from the CRPG world coming over, like James Ohlen, founder of Arcanum Worlds. All of them headed very successful Kickstarters in 2019. But it’s not just that these people brought in more funds because of their celebrity: they did so because of their large audiences, audiences which are growing the ranks of our roleplaying hobby.

Other than that, it’s become clear that Kickstarter is being embraced by companies all across the industry — though mostly, that’s companies from the ’00s or later at this point. Nightfall Games, founded back in 1993, is one of the older companies to find good success on Kickstarter this year, but there are many more whose origins lay in the d20 boom, like AAW Games, Frog God Games, and Mongoose. Obviously, the foreign companies continue to do well with Kickstarter, with the Free League (Fria Ligan) continuing to be the most notable. A number of indie publishers also did well in 2019, such as Grant Howitt and Magpie Games, who scored a really notable success by turning the cult-hit Root board game (2018) into an RPG. Finally, we have some OSR products too: Kickstarter success covers a cross-section of the roleplaying industry in the ’10s.

There’s just one fly in the Kickstarter ointment, and that’s its apparent union-busting problems, which more than one publisher felt the need to explicitly discuss during their Kickstarters. Thus far, the nascent union has not called for a boycott, and that’s kept roleplaying creators on the platform, but if Kickstarter escalates its attacks on its union employees, it could cause real problems in the roleplaying industry, which is nowadays placing a lot of its eggs in the crowdfunding basket. With that said, there are still plenty of successful companies like Chaosium, Paizo, and Wizards who aren’t currently using Kickstarter, so it’s likely that a Kickstarter slowdown would primarily cost us in diversity.

Goodbye to the ’10s: There’s surely more to talk about for 2019, such as Chaosium’s acquisition of 7th Sea (1999), the end of Tom DeSanto’s lawsuit against Gail Gygax, Christian Petersen’s (preplanned) departure from FFG, Modiphius’ acquisition of the Vampire: The Masquerade 5e license, and the blacklisting of a few different people from RPG companies for various social reasons. Many of those events will probably make it into the company histories of future Designers & Dragons.

And now that the ’10s are over, I know people will be asking about a Designers & Dragons: The ’10s volume. The answer is: eventually. I wrote Designers & Dragons: The ’00s several years after the ’00s were over, and I felt like that was the appropriate length of time to find out which companies were notable from the period, and what happened to them. But in a few months, after I’ve fully settled into my new tropical home, I do plan to start thinking about the topic (and more generally to get back to work on a variety of RPG history projects that I’ve got in process).

Happy ’20s to all!

This article was originally published as Advanced Designers & Dragons #26 on RPGnet. It followed the publication of the four-volume Designers & Dragons (2014) from Evil Hat, and was meant to complement those books.

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